History of the
Walworth County was
formed by legislative act early in 1838 and was named in honor of
Chancellor Ruben N. Walworth of New York. County officers were
nominated and elected the same year and began their duties and terms
of office on January 7, 1839.
The Walworth County
Sheriff's Office was established in 1839 in the Territory of
Wisconsin, 9 years before Wisconsin became a state. Sheldon
Walling of rural Lake Geneva was the first of four territorial
The first Walworth
County Jail was erected in 1840 and was the first building owned by
the county. It was constructed of logs and measured 14 feet by
20 feet. The first jail stood for 12 years. The Sheriff
was then, as he is now, the official custodian of the county jail
and the prisoners committed to it. If the Sheriff himself is
committed to jail for any cause, it is the duty of the Coroner to
take charge of the jail.
The first jail was
also the setting for an unofficial "Work Release" project. One
of the early inmates of the jail was William Brown, a young German
man who had a very limited command of the English language. He
had been arrested for horse stealing. There was no energetic
movement to indict him and he was confined to the log jail.
The Sheriff at the time, Otis Preston, also took a liking to Brown
and allowed him "Freedom of the yard", which included all of
Elkhorn. He worked cleaning up the park and in the evening he
would sit in the jail and play cards or visit with townspeople who
would stop by to see him. Brown was given a key to let himself
in and out of the jail. Two grand juries failed to bring
charges against Brown and he was ordered released from "custody".
Sheriff Preston found Brown on the park grounds, read him his
discharge papers, demanded and received the jail key, and walked
over to the jail and locked Brown "out".
The county board
voted on April 21, 1851 to condemn the old jail and build a new one.
Four thousand dollars was appropriated and February 1, 1852 was set
for a completion date. The jail was built on the Northeast
corner of Court Street and Church Street in the City of Elkhorn.
It was constructed of stone and brick and was two stories high.
The front of the building served as the Sheriff's quarters, with the
jail in the rear section. Escapes were frequent and additional
work on the cells was done later to make the jail more secure.
In 1877 plans were
made for a new jail -- the third in Walworth County history.
The structure was completed in 1878 by Janesville Contractors.
It was built on the Northwest corner of Church and Walworth Streets
in Elkhorn. The total cost, including the lot, was $10,546.00.
It was two stories tall and provided for a Sheriff's residence in
the front and the jail in the back, with two tiers of cells.
Construction material was mainly quarry stone and brick.
In 1910, the State
Board of Control condemned the jail. The new jail was
completed in 1915 and cost approximately $35,000.00. It was
built on the same site as the 1878 jail and stood until the mid
1980's. The new jail also housed the Sheriff's quarters (east
end, upstairs) and the Sheriff's Office headquarters (east end
downstairs). There were cells on both the first and second
In 1911, the County
Board appointed a special committee to investigate the method of
compensating the Sheriff and his Deputies. It called for the
Sheriff to be paid $1,800.00 per year. The number of Deputies
to be appointed by the Sheriff was limited to seven. One of
the designated appointees was to be an "able-bodied male person over
the age of 21" who was to reside at the County Jail and be paid
$300.00 per year plus room and board at the jail. He was to
act as turnkey, deputy, and jailer. Three of the deputies were
to reside (one each) in the cities of Whitewater, Lake Geneva, and
Delavan. They were to receive $2.00 per day for each day while
actually engaged in the performance of duties as a deputy, but not
more than $75.00 each in any year (plus expenses).
During June 1929, a
regular schedule of hours for the four deputies was devised so that
all were on duty on busy days and nights. Each deputy was to
have one day off each week. Because of the demand for services
and numerous calls, this schedule was not lived up to and from May
1st to September 1st, Deputies O'Brien and Dorr each had only 2 days
off and Deputy Gardner had only 1 day off.
As a result of the
success of the full-time deputy concept, the salary was adjusted.
Starting pay remained at $150 per month but a raise to $175 per
month was authorized after 1 year of employment and to $200 per
month after 2 years.
One of the Walworth
County Jail's most well-known "guests" was Roger Touhy. Touhy
and his men were some of the most wanted criminals in the Midwest.
On the night of July 19, 1933 Touhy, Triggerman William Sharkey,
Eddie "Father Tom" McFadden, and "Gloomy" Gus Schaeffer (once one of
the most wanted criminals in America) were traveling near Elkhorn to
an unknown destination. Near Bethel Church on Hwy 12, their
large Chrysler sedan hit a rut and they broke off a telephone pole.
They might have escaped had they not been seen by Hugh Squires, who
called the police. Rookie officer Harry Ward, without a car at
his disposal, hailed George Wiswell and they drove out of Elkhorn
toward the scene. They spotted the car just outside Elkhorn
and stopped it. The driver of the Chrysler and the occupants
initially denied knowledge of the incident but Officer Ward noticed
damage to the car and confronted them with it. Ward insisted
that they return with him to the County Jail to settle up and pay
for the damages. Roger Touhy argued the matter and was
required to go to jail in Wiswell's car. Sharkey then drove
the Chrysler to Elkhorn, with Officer Ward standing on the running
board for the trip to the jail. Apparently, Ward and Wiswell
believed that the men were just fishermen from Illinois and
were here to simply enjoy Wisconsin. Touhy was held while
damages could be figured out and the others were given permission to
find a cold beer. While they were gone, the vehicle was
searched and a considerable number of guns were found.
Touhy was immediately locked up by Sheriff George O'Brien and Deputy
Sheriff Joe Dorr and a search went out for the others. Sharkey
hitched a ride on a chicken truck to Lake Geneva and called the
jail, inquiring about the damage to the telephone pole. He was
arrested by Deputy John Cusack. McFadden and Schaeffer were
picked up by Officers Ward and Wiswell near Elkhorn. Touhy
went to prison and was paroled in November 1939. He was shot
down, gangland style, only 22 days after his release.
On May 4, 1937, the
County Board of Supervisors passed a resolution to equip the
Sheriff's and Deputy Sheriff's cars with police radios and the jail
with a central radio station. The officers owned their own
cars and were given a $200-per-year allowance for depreciation on
their vehicle. A special fund was set up to accept
contributions to help pay for the radio system and the County Board
authorized $5,000 toward the expense of the system. The
central system and three cars were equipped to have sending and
receiving capabilities. A fourth car was only equipped with a
receiver. In September 1937 the County Board authorized
$675.00 to pay the salary of a second class radio operator from
August 14th to December 31st. The new radio station was
W.M.P.E., a 250-watt station, and was capable of broadcasting
"beyond the county lines". Walworth County's new radio system
was the first two-way police radio set-up to be utilized in the
rural areas of the State of Wisconsin.
In 1962 the
Sheriff's Office moved from the building that had served as the jail
and office since 1914. The new quarters were located in the
West end of the new Walworth County Courthouse. In July 1963,
approval was given to construct 3 additional adult cell blocks in
the jail and the work was completed in 1964.
In September 1987,
because of pressure to address our jail overcrowding problems by the
State Jail Inspector, Walworth County formed an Ad Hoc Jail Study
Committee. The County's approval in December 1991 to construct
the Walworth County Law Enforcement Center on County-owned land at
the Lakeland Complex provided a solution to some of the problems.
By moving the Sheriff's Office out of the courthouse, space became
available to address some of the rest of the county government's
The current Sheriff
of Walworth County is Kurt Picknell of Elkhorn. Sheriff
Picknell took office on January 5, 2015.
In the 160 years
since Sheldon Walling took office as the first Sheriff (and only
employee), the Walworth County Sheriff's Office has gradually
expanded to include Sheriff Kurt Picknell and 83 sworn Deputy
Sheriffs and 124 civilian personnel.
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